Durham trail fans consider public-nuisance approach for Beltway

jwise@newsobserver.comOctober 29, 2013 

Proponents of turning the unused and overgrown Beltline rail corridor into a greenway are considering a public-nuisance approach for dealing with its owner, Norfolk Southern.

“It has to be explored,” Reynolds Smith, a greenway supporter on the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission, told the InterNeighborhood Council last week.

Earlier this year, the railroad set a price of $7.1 million for the two-mile right of way. That ended talks in which trail supporters had encouraged Norfolk Southern to set a low sales price, if not donate it outright, by stressing such a move’s public-relations benefits.

“There’s a lot of history there,” Smith said. “In a way it illustrates a shared history between Durham and the railroad.

“That seemed to have had no impact.”

Since trains stopped running on it in the 1990s, neighbors have complained that the rail line has become an overgrown and littered eyesore, and a refuge for vagrants.

Any other Durham landowner would likely be forced to clean up such property or pay the city to do it, said Phil Azar, the INC delegate from Trinity Park.

Citing the railroad for creating a public nuisance might get the property cleared, if not persuade the railroad to drop its price.

Tobin Freid, city-county sustainability director, said she had heard the idea discussed in city meetings.

Tom Miller, a retired state real-estate lawyer, raised a cautionary note.

“Railroads are special animals under federal statutes … and our ability to influence them like we might any other city property owner is dramatically limited.”

State Sen. Mike Woodard said Norfolk Southern is “holding the Beltline hostage” to get some of Durham’s grade crossings closed or otherwise improved to speed freight traffic.

“I’ve had senior executives tell me, until we move on the railroad crossings they’re interested in … they’re not willing to talk.”

Crossing improvements, including closings and converting some to over- or underpasses, are recommended in a Traffic Separation Study being prepared for the City Council.

“For the city to make any movement on (crossings), we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars,” Woodard said. “So we’re at kind of a standoff.”

That standoff has stood for at least eight years. In 2005, the city and the N.C. Department of Transportation appeared close to a deal to buy the Beltline along with Norfolk Southern’s unused line running north to Person County for $5 million.

The railroad suddenly backed out. Woodard said talks have continued ever since, but without result.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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